On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: What about unions in the developing world?

Organized Labor: The folks who brought you the weekendToday marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The disaster resulted in 146 deaths, largely because factory management was in the habit of locking the exits and stairwells. The event is credited with galvanizing the labor movement in America, leading to new regulations and increased support for unionization in the following years. Laura Freschi at AidWatch has written more on the events of March 25th, 2011.

The status of American organized labor is somewhat grimmer today. Union membership in the private sector is less than 7% of workers. This is correlated with public support for unions, which has reached an all time low. In some ways, licensing has replaced union membership as America shifted into a post-industrial economy based more on services than manufacturing. However licensing is arguably a poor replacement for unions, especially for unskilled workers who are most vulnerable. The Wisconsin protests demonstrated that organized labor isn’t quite powerless: Governor Walker’s victory in the legislature may turn out to be Pyrrhic if the political fight costs him a future term in office (and, to possibly make it worse for him: the state supreme court is set to review whether the bill’s passage violated procedures).

What’s the role of organized labor in influencing labor standards in developing countries? Apparently, not much. Unions in the developing world are weak, and play a less important role than they do in developed countries. Where they exist, they focus more on political activity rather than collective bargaining. (See here for more — sorry, can’t find an ungated version.)

The international development industry doesn’t seem very interested in promoting unionization. The International Labour Organization (ILO) works with governments on promoting compliance with labor standards, and one of those standards is freedom of association. A report from 2008 suggests that influencing the legal framework and getting conventions ratified (the bulk of ILO’s approach) is much easier than changing real practices in developing economies. In any case, the ILO may be losing favor: DFID recently decided to stop funding it because it’s ineffective (for the full explanation, see here page 186). More broadly, it seems like the US discourse about developing country worker protections tends to focus on top-down solutions from policymakers (better labor regulations) or corporations (appeals to corporate social responsibility or consumer pressure), rather than bottom-up pressure from organized labor.

Labor standards in the US didn’t evolve in response to pressure from outside the US. Yet that seems to be the model being pursued for developing countries today. This is fairly representative of how developing country governments face different political constraints today than the developed nations faced a century ago. US labor standards evolved in response to bottom-up pressure from unions and their political allies. Ditto for anti-corruption efforts, establishment of the social safety net, improvement of public services, expansion of political enfranchisement, and so on. No force outside the US was pushing these reforms as hard as the internal forces. In contrast, developing countries today face larger external forces than internal ones. We shouldn’t be surprised if the result is a government that fails to serve the interests of the poor.


Fun facts: The site of the Triangle Factory, just off Washington Square Park, is now an NYU building. I had a class there last year. Also, the commission that investigated the fire was chaired by State Senator Robert F. Wagner. Later, as a US Senator, Wagner sponsored federal legislation that guaranteed union rights to private sector workers. His son was Robert F. Wagner Jr., who became a three-term mayor of New York in the 1950s/60s and then had a certain graduate school in named in his honor.

If you’re interested, there are various happenings in NYC commemorating the Triangle Fire.

(Hat tip to @bwuphoto for various sources.)